It’s funny to think of a pay stub as a birth certificate, but when the Continental Congress established the monthly pay — $20, what a value! — for Continental Army chaplains on July 29, 1775, they established what would become the Army Chaplain Corps.
The marriage of ministry and military goes back hundreds, if not thousands, of years. The term “chaplain” hails back to Martin of Tours, a fourth-century Roman soldier who gave part of his military cloak to a shivering beggar. That night he had a vision of Christ dressed in that cloak. Martin converted to Christianity, dedicated his life to the church and was canonized after his death. His cloak — “cappa” in Latin — was valued as a powerful religious symbol by Frankish kings. It was carried in a case called a “capella,” and the priest in charge of the cloak was called a “cappellanus.” Eventually, all clergy affiliated with the military became known as “capellini,” which in French became “chapelains.”
Chaplains in today’s U.S. military are noncombatants, but that is a fairly recent development. The Council of Ratisbon in 742 A.D. authorized chaplains to minister to armies, but prohibited chaplains from bearing arms or fighting. However, Bishop Odo (Battle of Hastings, 1066) and John Capistrano (Battle of Belgrade, 1456) are two notable examples of clergy who fought for the faith.
Chaplains in colonial America frequently fought alongside the militia to whom they ministered. During the Revolutionary War, it was not uncommon for ministers to raise — and sometimes lead — military units from their own congregations. Traditionally, however, clergy were consigned to the “Alarm List” or last third of militia units reserved for the old, the poor, judges and clergy.
American military chaplains transitioned away from combat into other roles after the Revolutionary War. Chaplains assigned to regular Army outposts in the 19th century also served as librarians and schoolmasters. During the Mexican Expedition of 1916, chaplains began providing Morale, Welfare and Recreation (MWR) functions — stationary and envelopes for letter-writing, tents for reading, letter writing and games, movies and local tours. These efforts were more than mere hospitality — bored troops put themselves at risk of contracting venereal diseases by visiting prostitutes. Chaplains began offering sex education programs, and a National Guard chaplain — James Naismith of the 1st Kansas Infantry Regiment — also organized athletic competitions for Soldiers to work off pent-up energy.
In World War I, chaplains conducted worship services wherever they could — in mess tents, trenches and forests. They worked alongside surgeons, ambulance crews and litter bearers. Chaplains would collect the dead, conduct burials and perform grave registration duties. They visited the sick and wounded, and wrote sympathy letters to the next of kin. They served as unit postal officers and also screened outgoing mail for sensitive military information. They often filled the role of unit historian, librarian, post exchange officers, mess officers, defense counsels, regimental statistical officers, education officers, couriers, rifle range scorers, and citizenship training officers for foreign troops seeking naturalization.
Today, chaplains continue to provide a vital service to the Army. In addition to providing religious support to troops and ensuring all Soldiers can freely exercise their religion, we offer counseling to service members regardless of faith tradition — or no faith tradition. We are part of the support network for service members who have been sexually assaulted. We offer Strong Bonds programs to help service members learn better ways to begin relationships and to maintain their marriages. We provide ethical and moral guidance. We advise commanders on the morale and well-being of the troops in their charge. In short, we nurture the living, care for the wounded and honor the fallen.
Over the past 239 years, more than 25,000 Army chaplains have served alongside Soldiers in more than 270 military engagements. Nearly 300 Army chaplains have died while doing so, and eight have received the Medal of Honor. Today, more than 3,000 chaplains represent more than 140 different religious organizations across the active Army, Army Reserve and Army National Guard.
George Washington recognized the inherent value of chaplains during the French and Indian War of 1754-63. We continue to provide that value today, and consider it a blessing to do so.